For a team, it was a terrible start.
After weeks of hype about Milan’s first Champions League derby since 2005, AC Milan went down 2-0 inside 11 minutes.
This was not the plan. Before kick-off, the ‘home’ supporters – both legs will be played at San Siro – unveiled a giant display of the face of a devil, with the words: “Hell is empty, all that devils here!”
But it was easy heaven for Inter fans, thanks to goals for Edin Dezko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
“Everything that could go wrong for Milan did,” said former AC Milan goalkeeper Asmir Begovic at half-time.
“It was an absolute disaster and one of their wildest dreams that they could ever imagine.”
But after a host to no chance at Inter Milan and a controversial decision by the video assistant referee, have AC Milan been given a lifeline they didn’t deserve?
‘AC Milan have stage fright’
A derby in Milan is always a memorable occasion but one in a European competition is something to savor.
Only twice before Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg have AC Milan faced their fierce city rivals Inter on the continental stage and both sets of supporters are determined to make the most of it.
AC Milan, the designated home team in the San Siro stadium which is divided into two sides, has a lot of fans inside. A wall of noise, red smoke billowing and huge flags made for an eerie atmosphere.
But it was the fighting side that came out swinging. After racing into a two-goal lead, they also hit the woodwork through Hakan Calhanoglu as AC Milan were left exposed several times.
Inter even had a first-half penalty awarded to them for a foul on Lautaro Martinez before the decision was controversially overturned following a VAR review.
Inter Milan boss Simone Inzaghi said: “We played a good first half, but it was a tough score for what we did there.
“It was a big positive night that gave us a lot of satisfaction but we lack one more piece to achieve a dream we believed in since August.”
Former Liverpool striker Peter Crouch told BT Sport: “I find it strange for AC Milan to be so passive. Inter could be out of sight.”
Former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand added: “Inter came out like a bunch of sprinters at the Olympics and AC Milan had stage fright.”
‘He dropped himself’
The big decision came in the 31st minute. Inter were awarded a penalty as Martinez went down inside the box following a challenge from Simon Kjaer.
But when referee Jesus Gil Manzano was urged to check the pitchside monitor by VAR, the decision was overturned.
Manzano didn’t feel enough contact from Kjaer, who grabbed Martinez’s shirt before he went down.
“He completely tried to con the referee. He felt a hand on his waist and dropped himself,” said BBC Radio 5 Live pundit and former Chelsea winger Pat Nevin.
“I’m glad the referee changed his mind.”
But others are not so sure.
“I think there was contact so I’m surprised they turned it down,” former Manchester United and Bayern Munich midfielder Owen Hargreaves told BT Sport.
“This is a punishment. He is cut and he is held. If he feels something, he goes down.
“Inter Milan are very good but with the penalty and missed chances, there are many regrets.”
Former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard added: “I think he killed himself by reacting. I think technically the penalty should have stood. The ref looked and thought the contact wasn’t enough for reaction. He went to the screen and saw it a little contact.”
‘A world-class striker’
Inzaghi put his faith in experience and it paid off as 37-year-old Dzeko grabbed the opener after eight minutes before 34-year-old Mkhitaryan grabbed the second.
It was the first time that two players aged 34 or over scored for one team in a Champions League knockout match.
“Dzeko is a world-class player,” said Begovic, who played alongside Dzeko for Bosnia-Herzegovina. “It’s no wonder he did it, knowing him for 15 years. He has hold-up play, technique, maybe lacks a little pace.
“He is dedicated to the game, disciplined, keeps himself clean. He leads the front line perfectly.”
Only one team in the history of the semi-finals of the Champions League has won the first leg by two or more goals and did not reach the final – Barcelona, against Liverpool in 2018-19.
However, despite the two-goal advantage, Inter knew their place in a first Champions League final since 2010 had not been booked.